Autographs by Terry Cox

Autograph collecting is a hobby separate from stock and bond collecting. It just happens to overlap the stock and bond hobby because many certificates are issued to, or otherwise signed by, major and minor celebrities. Autographs are important both for their historical significance, and for their speculative possibilities.

Do your research

Newcomers often share the misconception that autographs represent excellent opportunities to get rich quick. A warning is in order. You cannot stumble into this specialty and reasonably expect to win. Autograph collecting takes careful research. It takes a clear understanding of the market. Without both, speculation in autographs represents a terrific opportunity to get poor quick.

The autographs that show the greatest demand among advanced collectors are those of major industrialists (Rockefeller, Carnegie), major investors (Hetty Green), legendary railroaders (Commodore Vanderbilt, Jay Gould), and major historical figures (Nathan Bedford Forrest). Signatures of that caliber routinely attract prices in the thousands of dollars.

There are fewer such autographs than there are collectors who want them, so important signatures show steady increases in prices. Price increases routinely beat inflation by several percent per year. At that level of collecting, all attention is focused on the value of autographs. The values of certificates on which they it appear are immaterial.

Down the ladder of importance are signatures of prominent railroaders (Harriman, Huntington, and the Vanderbilt heirs), important industrialists (Morgan, DuPont, and Mellon), politicians (Fillmore), and military figures (Burnside.) Make no mistake. These were important Americans. Still, collectors usually pay less than a thousand dollars each for their signatures. Their popularity is somewhat fickle. They are in a different class than the previous group. Like the previous group, their signatures are worth more than the certificates they grace.

In less demand are the signatures of minor figures. In this group are autographs from people like Cassatt, Clews, Depew, Grow, and Scott. These people were important to their companies. Many were well known in their time. Still, they had limited impact on the nation as a whole. At this level, you can discern the values of autographs separate from the values of certificates. Expect to pay $5 to $100 for autographs from this group plus the cost of the certificates they are on. Buy autographs from this group carefully. Always consider possible resale. When you buy these kinds of autographs, try to buy those with minimal cancellations, legible handwriting, and scarcer certificates.

The most unpredictable group of autographs are those of locally-important figures. These are figures who were important in one city, county, or state, but who may not have been well-known elsewhere. Such autographs can attract huge bids in one auction, and go unsold thereafter. This is the realm of the specialist.

When you are first starting to collect autographs, be very cautious! If you see an autograph for sale, and you do not already know who that person was, that is a gentle hint that you should do more research before you invest. Never buy an autograph until you know whose signature you are buying and why you need to own it.

What exactly is an autograph?

For the purposes of this catalog, an autograph is:

A signature, usually in ink, signed by hand by the person whose name appears.

This definition seems so obvious that I need to define what is NOT an autograph.

A printed or rubber stamped facsimile signature.
A signature signed by a mechanical device (Autopen or Signa-Signer).
A signature signed by someone (a surrogate signer) other than the person named.

Stock certificates commonly offer several autograph possibilities. On the front (recto) of each stock certificate are usually two signatures of company executives. These are usually the company president and a clerk or treasurer. Additionally, there may be counter-signatures or clerks or officers in trust companies or banks. If a stock certificate was legally transferred, the signature of the stockholder will usually appear on the back (verso). Such certificates may also include potentially valuable signatures of witnesses, attorneys, and transfer company officers.

Issued bonds usually show the company president’s signature on the front. They may also include signatures of comptrollers, treasurers, and clerks. Owners’ signatures seldom appear anywhere on bearer bonds. Registered bonds, however, may show owners’ signatures on the back. The backs of many bonds show the signatures of trustees and guarantors.

Issued to, but not signed by…

In this price guide, you will see a few references to certificates that were issued to famous people, but the celebrities never signed them. Normally, such certificates are signed by attorneys. Such certificates are not autographed. However, because they carry famous names, they attract auction bids slightly above ordinary certificates.

Pens used for autographs

Prior to the 1940s, almost all stocks and bonds were signed by hand with some sort of quill pen, steel nib pen, or fountain pen. Inks for those pens were usually a black or bluish black when applied, but most aged to a brown color. As a rule, very old autographs show a brown halo caused by migration of the liquid agent (usually linseed oil) that carried the black pigment (usually lamp black.)

Signatures signed in ball point pen started appearing in the 1950s. Although uncommon, you will occasionally find low quality ‘forgeries’ signed with ball-point pens. The modern ball-point pen was invented in about 1935, although the earliest patent was issued in 1888. The first successful ball point pen was sold in large quantities in 1945. You can be certain that anything signed with a ball-point pen before 1935 is definately a forgery. Any certificate signed in ball point before late 1945 should be highly questionable.

It is sometimes hard to distinguish facsimile signatures from autographs. The surest way to tell the difference is to flip the certificate over. Fountain pen ink normally soaked through the paper while printed facsimile ink did not. Real autographs normally dented the paper, the evidence of which can be seen most easily from the back. Another method is to look closely where one pen stroke crossed another. If the junction of the two strokes is exactly the same shade as the surrounding pen strokes, you’re probably dealing with a facsimile. (Experiment with both fountain pens and ball-point pens to see how they behave.)

Facsimile signatures are common on recent stocks and bonds, but it is hard to pinpoint exactly when they first appeared. The New York Central heavily used pre-printed officers’ autographs in the 1940s, and thereafter. The earliest recorded facsimile signature in the database is currently attributed to a New York Central specimen (NEW-530-Ss-65) from 1914.

There is no easy way to discriminate between Autopen signatures and genuine handwritten signatures. Generally, you need several certificates for comparison. If several signatures are identical in flow and appearance, you have a mechanically-made signature. If the signatures vary considerably, you probably have genuine signatures. (Notable exceptions are the signatures of the U.S. Presidents where several different auto-signing machines may be used concurrently.)


Authenticity is a serious issue with autographs. Fortunately, the engraving on stocks and bonds is usually so complex, and certificates are still so cheap, that counterfeiting of whole documents makes little sense. However, forgers can buy unissued certificates and add fake signatures. They can also remove worthless signatures from issued certificates and substitute forgeries of valuable autographs.

So far, stock and bond autograph forgeries have proven rare. That will probably change as autographs grow increasingly valuable. Protect yourself as much as possible by buying autographs from reputable, established dealers who unequivocally guarantee their products. For valuable signatures, seek expert authentication from one or more third party appraisers.

Finally, read these books:

Questioned Documents
Collecting Autographs and Manuscripts
Salamander: the story of the Mormon forgery murders

Prices for autographed issues

Autograph collecting is a separate hobby that happens to involve stocks and bonds. Autographs of famous people add significantly to values of otherwise common stocks and bonds. Autograph collecting can be highly profitable. Taken as a group, autographs have historically shown excellent price growth. They are popular investments.

Fame and autograph demand

Generally, the richer and more influential the individual, the more collectors demand his or her signature.

Autographs from last century’s millionaires are usually in high demand. Autographs from heirs and offspring are worth much less than their illustrious parents. Signatures from celebrity spouses are usually in less demand except among specialist collectors.

Unless individuals were notorious, rich, or both, autographs of company officers are seldom sought after. Autographs from persons of pure celebrity (movie stars, composers, sports figures) are valued roughly in comparison with their enduring fame. The perceived value of autographs from politicians, military figures, judges, crooks, and other notables roughly track the degree of their national impact.

Presently, the most ‘valuable’ rail-related autograph is that of Andrew Carnegie. It appeared on a Pullman Palace Car stock certificate and sold for over $70,000 in the 1999 Strasburg sale by R.M. Smythe. Other extremely valuable autographs include ‘Commodore’ Cornelius Vanderbilt, founder of the New York Central Railroad and the Vanderbilt dynasty. His signature is extremely rare on railroad certificates. Signatures from Jay Gould, on items other than MKT stocks, are also extremely valuable.

The pricing of autographs is problematic

The so-called value of autographs depends on one thing – how important buyers think an autograph should be. One buyer may be completely enamored with the ‘get it done’ tenacity of John Casement as he drove the Union Pacific westward across the continent. Another buyer might wonder, ‘So what?’ The value of every autograph is personal.

The values of autographs in the catalog come primarily from prices realized at auctions. In most cases, auction prices represent competition between two or more bidders. Prices in fixed-price catalogs will usually be higher.

Look before you leap

Buy autographs cautiously, especially when you are first starting. Study all aspects of autograph collecting before you invest. Prices will be cyclic. Autograph prices CAN AND DO FALL! Financial returns can be wonderful or pitiful.

Think about resale

Because of potential profits, and losses, autograph collecting is often equated with investing. Consequently, when you collect autographs, you should always keep an eye on potential resale. Never buy an autograph before you assess its future. Ask yourself, as dispassionately as possible, whether you think future collectors will think a particular signature as desirable as you do. Commodore Vanderbilt’s autographs are easy. But what about Henry Clews’?

Uncontrollable events affect values.

Random events affect people’s impressions about the importance of specific autographs. For example, consider the 1869 Selma Marion & Memphis Railroad bond. All were signed by Confederate hero Nathan Bedford Forrest.

In 1989, the bonds routinely sold for $150 to $250. Then came along Public Television’s broadcast Ken Burn’s Civil War series in 1990. Within months, dealers in a wide range of hobbies noticed an unprecedented interest in every kind of collectible related to the Civil War. By 1992, Selma Memphis & Marion bonds were selling for as much as $900. By 1994, auction prices had topped $1,100. They are currently in the $2,500 to $3,000 range.

Outside events can also lower values and salability of autographs. You can see notable examples with signatures of World War I personalities. They were in very high demand during the 1920s and 1930s. After World War II, interest in World War I autographs dropped significantly. Prices are still low considering their age and historical significance.

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